What makes a great King Lear?

This article appeared in the Daily Telegraph and is widely available online:  some general Lear thoughts to stimulate revision ideas:

Sir Laurence Olivier as King Lear

Sir Laurence Olivier as King Lear

Derek Jacobi’s Lear has been garnering extraordinary reviews from seasoned Shakespeare watchers. What is it about this play that makes it the Everest of classical acting? And who are the actors who have crawled their way to the top and planted their triumphant flag on the summit?

It is only since the Sixties that the play has been regarded as Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy. Before then, Hamlet was taken to be the jewel in the crown. Remarkably, King Lear has been performed more times in the past 50 years than in its entire prior performance history of 350 years. It speaks with special power to a world of global conflict and a sense of impending apocalypse. The on-stage blinding of Gloucester (“Out, vile jelly!”) is the most terrifying moment in all Shakespeare. In Trevor Nunn’s 2007 production for the Royal Shakespeare Company, Regan set to work with sadistic glee that masked an underlying fear—the moment inevitably conjured up the American soldiers in Abu Ghraib.

For a long time, King Lear seemed either too vast or too horrific for the stage. Charles Lamb, writing in the early 19th century, was typical in proposing that Shakespeare’s anatomy of the human condition was so profound and tempestuous that the play could not be staged: “To see Lear acted — to see an old man tottering about the stage with a walking-stick, turned out of doors by his daughters in a rainy night, has nothing in it but what is painful and disgusting. We want to take him into shelter and relieve him. That is all the feeling which the acting of Lear ever produced in me. The Lear of Shakespeare cannot be acted.”

Lamb was speaking more truly than he knew. In 1811, when he wrote this, the Lear of Shakespeare could indeed not

be acted. The madness of George III meant that the London theatre managers kept this play about an old, mad and despised king off the stage, for fear of offending the court.

A generation before, Dr Samuel Johnson confessed that even reading the play was almost too much to bear: “I was many years ago so shocked by Cordelia’s death, that I know not whether I ever endured to read again the last scenes of the play till I undertook to revise them as an editor.” The shock for Johnson was both emotional and moral. The death of Cordelia —Shakespeare’s boldest alteration of the older versions of the Lear story, in all of which the beloved youngest daughter survives — was an extraordinary breach of the principle that Johnson called “poetical justice”, whereby the good end happily and the bad unhappily.

It was quite in order to impose poetical justice on the play: during the 1680s Nahum Tate, author of the hymn While Shepherds Watched, had rewritten King Lear with a happy ending, in which Cordelia was married off to Edgar. Johnson had some sympathy with this alteration, which held the stage for a century and a half, whereas for Lamb it was yet one more indication that the theatre was not to be trusted with Shakespeare’s sublime vision of universal despair.

The play’s special place in the modern Shakespearean repertoire can be traced back to a moment in the early Sixties when the director Peter Brook read an essay by the Polish literary scholar Jan Kott called King Lear, or Endgame. The unlikely juxtaposition of an epic drama set in Ancient Britain and Samuel Beckett’s nihilistic Endgame, in which dying characters exchange absurd dialogue as they lurk in dustbins in a post-nuclear wasteland, gave Brook a new way into the play. He cast Paul Scofield as the aged king and inspired the great critic Kenneth Tynan to write: “Lay him to rest, the royal Lear, with whom generations of star actors have made us reverently familiar, the majestic ancient, wronged and maddened by his vicious daughters.” Scofield’s Lear was an irascible father, a difficult old man, as much sinning as sinned against.

The genius of Brook and Scofield was that they revealed the play to be about Big Issues — power politics, international conflict, poverty and social exclusion, the condition of humanity in a godless universe — but equally about domestic problems, such as coping with a father who has dementia or dividing an estate between three daughters. The key to a great production is the ability to hold together the huge and the tiny, the universal and the local, the epic and the intimate. Shakespeare’s language makes just this demand, as it moves at speed from vast philosophical questions (“Is there any cause in nature that makes these hard hearts?”) to the language of small and ordinary things — garden waterpots, gilded flies and toasted cheese.

To make these shifts an actor needs long experience and terrific stamina. It’s sometimes said that the problem with the part of Lear is that by the time you are old enough to play it, you are too old to play it. Laurence Olivier tried both too soon and too late: on the stage in 1946, still in his thirties, he seemed to be impersonating a whimsical old tyrant rather than actually being one, while on television in 1983, he was too frail for the rage.

“Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! Rage, blow”: the role is often associated with the barnstorming style of Sir Donald Wolfit, as immortalised in Ronald Harwood’s play about his experience as the old actor-manager’s backstage dresser. But many of the finest modern productions have been in small spaces and a quieter style. For the actor, the real difficulty in playing the part is deciding how much to let rip how soon — if you give too much to the anger in the first half you’re too exhausted for the madness in the second half, but if you have too much control to begin with, the transition into madness can seem too sudden and extreme to be convincing. A slow build and then a relentless stretching out of emotional agony: that’s what works best.

Minimalist design and physical proximity to the audience help tremendously. The three best Lears I have ever seen were all in “black box” studio theatres: they were Tony Church, directed by the late Buzz Goodbody in an RSC “Theatregoround” production, Ian Holm in the little Cottesloe in Richard Eyre’s farewell production as artistic drector of the National, and Lee Beagley with a company called Kaboodle in Liverpool’s tiny Unity Theatre. What they had in common was the ability to range from a whisper and a tear to a curse and a howl. Fancy design on a cavernous stage, by contrast, can all too often lead to a train wreck, as Nigel Hawthorne discovered when he teamed up with the Japanese director Yukio Ninagawa in 1999.

The other key to a great production is the quality of the ensemble. Many a Hamlet has shone even in an indifferent production — as Jude Law did for the Donmar last year — because the character’s soliloquies allow him to hold the stage alone. But Lear, exceptionally for a Shakespearean tragic hero, is hardly ever alone. He constantly bounces off his companions — the Fool, who tries to teach him wisdom; the loyal Kent, who follows in disguise; the other broken aged man whose name is Gloucester.

Many of the most brilliant productions have depended on double acts: Michael Gambon as Lear with Antony Sher as Fool (perched on the king’s lap like a ventriloquist’s dummy), Ian McKellen as Kent standing resolute with Brian Cox’s Lear for Deborah Warner at the National, Alan Webb as Gloucester beside Scofield in both the stage version and the film of the Brook production. Compelling performances from Lear’s antagonists are equally important.

If the reviewers are to be believed, Michael Grandage’s production at the Donmar hits all the buttons: an intimate space and a minimal design, a uniformly strong ensemble, and in Sir Derek Jacobi an actor who has not left it too late, as Olivier did. It sounds as if in pursuit of a ticket we should be taking the advice of Lear himself: “Kill, kill, kill, kill, kill, kill.”

Jonathan Bate is Professor of Shakespeare and Renaissance Literature at the University of Warwick